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Self Defense

Pistols versus Rifles for Self Defense

Generally speaking, a rifle is superior to a pistol as a self defense tool. However, pistols play a critical role when it comes to self defense.

I participated in a little exchange discussing pistol cartridges for defense against wildlife the other day which is a topic I’ll visit in a post in the near future. As the exchange continued, one person mentioned that folks who live and participate in outdoor activities and are concerned about the prospect of being attacked by a brown bear recommend carrying a 12 gauge with slugs. Another person chimed in and mentioned that thinking a pistol will be adequate defense against a bear is a bad idea and there is a saying that goes something along the lines of “if you carry a pistol for bears, be sure to save the last round for yourself”. These were excellent points that highlight an import fact: rifle cartridges and certain shotgun loads are ballistically superior to pistol cartridges. Which begs the question, why carry a pistol if it’s ballistically inferior? And are there times when a pistol is a better choice?

I’m going to leave the shotgun out of this discussion for a couple reasons. The first reason is my knowledge of shotguns is minuscule compared to my knowledge of pistols and rifles. The second reason is that I’m terrible with shotguns all together. That said, I’ll leave you with the following quote from Clint Smith regarding pistols, rifles, and shotguns for self defense.

Pistols put holes in people. Rifles put holes through people. Shotguns, at the right range with the right load, will physically remove a chunk of shit from your opponent and throw that shit on the floor.

Clint Smith, Thunder Ranch

To help answer these questions, I think it will be worthwhile to review the reality that there are two ways to stop an attack regardless if the attacker is of the two or four legged variety. The ways are a psychological or a physiological stop. In other words, either the attacker changes their mind and stops attacking or they are physically forced to stop the attack.

Psychological stops are a result of processing sensory input that changes the mind of the attacker. This could be seeing the gun, hearing a gunshot, pain resulting from a gunshot wound, or a combination of those things. I am in no way suggesting the use of a warning shot. In fact, I think warning shots are a terrible idea and probably a topic that deserves it’s own post. For the sake of brevity, it suffices to say that it’s either time to shoot or it isn’t. If it’s time to shoot, then don’t waste time and intentionally miss as a psychological stop is never guaranteed.

Physiological stops are forced physical stops that usually come in two forms: central nervous system disruption or exsanguination. Arguments are often made, usually by folks who have limited self defense knowledge, to avoid shooting vital areas and simply shoot to disable an attacker. I’m of the opinion that this is a terrible idea which I’ve written at length about here. We are talking about a situation in which we are fighting for self preservation and the preservation of others we care about so it behooves a self defender to shoot in a manner that effectively and efficiently stops the life threatening attack – which means shooting for the vital bits. The only surefire way to stop an attack in its tracks is to directly hit the central nervous system. Physically stopping an attack via exsanguination, or blood loss, takes time which can be expedited by perforating circulatory system organs multiple times. Many hunters can attest to this as it’s not uncommon for a game animal to run quite a distance after taking a shot that perforates both lungs from a high powered rifle cartridge.

The take away from reviewing psychological and physiological stops for me are the following:

  1. The optimal weapon for self defense is the weapon which one can fire rapidly with a high degree of precision and accuracy while under stress.
  2. The optimal cartridge for self defense is one that can penetrate the target deep enough to reach circulatory and nervous system organs and structures while still allowing one to shoot the weapon rapidly with a high degree of precision and accuracy while under stress.

I’ll leave diving into those takeaways for another post, but in regards to the questions posed in this post: the rifle will serve one better than a pistol almost all the time. It is easier to learn to shoot a rifle fast with a high degree of precision and accuracy than a pistol. Additionally, rifle cartridges, for the most part, tend to be more powerful than pistol cartridges which means they are more likely to penetrate deep enough to reach the vital bits given proper projectile selection. I’m fairly certain that I might be able to find an extremely powerful pistol cartridge that is more powerful than a small rifle cartridge on the low end of the power spectrum, but this would be an exception to the rule. Not to mention that relatively few folks can shoot pistols with extremely powerful cartridges well.

So why even bother with pistols for self defense?

Two words: portability and concealability.

Rifles aren’t always practical to carry or use for self defense. There are many settings where carrying a rifle simply draws too much unwanted attention. For example, shopping at the local grocery store with a rifle slung over the shoulder or across the back or chest can cause a scene and is likely to end up as a meme on social media. Performing certain tasks, like fishing or painting, with a slung rifle can be difficult and sub-optimal. Using a rifle for self defense in highly confined spaces, like inside of a vehicle or a tent, is cumbersome and difficult. The added weight of a rifle is undesirable for some activities, like going for a jog or a hike, as well. Other times a rifle is carried in the manner that the time is required to bring it to bear, like strapped to a pack or in a carrying case. The bottom line is that there will be times where all that will be carried or available to bring to bear quickly is a pistol.

A handgun is for fighting your way to your rifle which you shouldn’t have put down in the first place.

Clint Smith, Thunder Ranch

Given the choice between a rifle and a pistol for self defense, I’ll grab the rifle. However, I think it’s better to have both whenever possible. At the very least, keeping a pistol on your person at all times is a good idea especially when having a rifle nearby isn’t practical.

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